"Human beings have to be the single most successful species in the history of the earth. On a geological time scale, we have done more things faster than any other species. Most life forms have to evolve to do the things we do by just putting our minds to it."
A Good Community welcomes Jeremy Burnich, lawyer-turned-writer and sustainable design thinking aficionado.
Jeremy – as a writer living in Pittsburgh, how do you spend most of your days?
Thinking and writing! I also love going out for a run. It either clears my mind, fills it up, or does both at the same time. Sometimes my mind starts working overtime and I’ll have entire conversations, presentations, or permutations running while I’m running.
I’ll have gone a couple of miles on complete autopilot before I realize where I am. Sometimes I try emptying my mind – practice being present by focusing on my breathing and working to silence my mind from complex ideas. After running, I usually end up with three good ideas that I've narrowed down from everything that popped into my mind. These are the ideas that I think would be good to explore at a later point.
That’s usually how I work. If I don’t get out and move my body I get foggy and (quite) irritable. I’m out when it’s cold or hot, but I prefer running in the cold. Usually it’s harder the first half mile. But when I'm warmed up outside, on a cold day. That’s a great feeling.
You used to be a lawyer, what made you change your course so dramatically?
I used to be in corporate litigation. I’ve worked in the wireless telecom industry, payment services as well as within the energy industry. After a while, I decided enough was enough and began to remove myself from the practice of law and move into more creative pursuits. That lead to my company which I formed in order to create beautiful things for people and for clients who share my values.
It sounds like you won't compromise with your values or expressing your creativity. Do you have any certain passions in life?
I don’t know if I have a passion, actually. I think I have a lot of interests that wax and wane and transform over time but I don’t know if I’ve had a lifelong passion, although writing has been a fairly constant through-line in my life.
I have been passionate about various things for varying lengths of time. For example, off and on for maybe 15 years, I was passionate about working with glass – both casting and blowing – as an artistic medium. That led me into the joy of using CAD (Computer-aided design) and digital sculpting to create physical art, but I’d love to somehow meld the two going forward.
I’ve made some unforced errors in my life. Pursued some unhealthy relationships, did some unhealthy things, made some poor career decisions, zigged when I should have zagged. But whenever I’ve wrecked my ship along some storm-tossed shore, writing has been the skerry I swim to and the tool I use to rebuild my boat.
If I lost the ability to write, I’d be quite stranded indeed.
I’d like to use this gift to create a book. God knows I’d love it to be popular enough so that I could support myself and a family with it. But at least three, a debut, a follow-up and a third to show that I’m being serious!
One question we sometimes ask the members of A Good Community is what they think society's greatest challenge is, right now. We find it interesting to hear from people in all walks of life to see what they see as our major challenges. What's your take on that?
Human beings have to be the single most successful species in the history of the Earth. On a geological time scale, we have done more things faster than any other species. Most life forms have to evolve to do the things we do by just putting our minds to it.
Scientists estimate that it took billions of years for life to develop, half a billion for that life to pop its head out of the water, and around 30 million years for life to fully move from the sea to land.
We went from land to outer space in around 10,000 years. In the process, we cultivated plants and animals and sculpted the very earth to suit our particular needs.Think about that.
"What if there were some glaciologists on board the Titanic?"
No place exists on this planet that hasn’t been touched in some way by the activity of people. Society’s greatest challenge? It's our success.
I feel that in general, the vast majority of people are in the same boat as the passengers in steerage on the Titanic. No matter what they do or where they are, they are more or less along for the ride. The captain and crew are the ones in control and we all know how negligent they were.
What if there were some glaciologists on board the Titanic? Experts who knew where icebergs were likely to form, advised on their avoidance and warned people that hitting one was imminent unless the ship changed course. And what if there were lobbyists on board paid to say that the Titanic was unsinkable and that glacier science wasn't 100%?
That’s where we are. Why take the risk? Why believe the people paid to tell us a narrative for the benefit of certain commercial interests? We all want the same thing – to get to our destination safely. In that case, wouldn’t a mutiny sort of make sense?
"Wealthy people, in general, will be OK in terms of climate change. They'll probably make more money off of it. It's nothing new."
I’m not advocating for torches and pitchforks but we need to change course on many things – not the least of which is climate change, wealth inequality, and resource distribution. If nothing changes the people in steerage – and I count myself in that group – will pay the biggest price. People with the means will have early access to the lifeboats.
Wealthy people, in general, will be OK in terms of climate change. They'll probably make more money off of it. It's nothing new.
The people in steerage more or less need to come together and reach an agreement on what is and isn’t acceptable!
You live in Pittsburgh, US, as we mentioned in the beginning of the interview. Have you seen any climate-related impacts on nature where you live?
Yes. Pittsburgh is very hilly – I wouldn’t say mountainous - but topographically very hilly. Driving here is the worst - it has Amalfi Coast roads but instead of Mediterranean views, there's just post-industrial ruin. And we’ve been experiencing lots of landslides and flooding. We are getting more rain than we normally do so the ground is getting very saturated.
To exasperate things, development has altered where water naturally flows so we’ll get these flash floods that didn’t occur in the past happening every year because of the combination of more water and more impermeable surfaces – parking lots, roads, etc. – forcing the water to streams and tributaries not meant to take water at the speed and pressure that it’s being forced to which causes quick erosion and overflow.
How does that make you feel? What sort of action does that make you want to take?
When I lived in New Orleans, my home was flooded twice. It's not pleasant. It stinks. I feel bad for the people that have to dig out and try to rebuild. Usually, it's the lower-income areas that are affected the most and they are especially vulnerable and don't have to means to fully rebuild.
I think Pittsburgh needs to look at rain gardens and natural ways of remediation and slowing water flow down but at the same time, what can I do. Vote? Run for office myself? I don’t know.
The air quality here is bad too. Whenever there’s a temperature inversion trapping the steel mill emissions – yes, there’s still steel in Pittsburgh – everywhere literally smells like farts. For real. It’s especially bad in the morning and it’s terrible to open the door first thing and be assaulted with that stench.
"Ignorance and fear are what could hold us back but knowledge and compassion are more than up to the challenge of dispelling both those foes."
Thanks for being part of A Good Community, any last words you’d like to add for the people around the world reading this?
We need to step away from this "Global FOMO" (Fear Of Missing Out) we're all caught in. No one is missing out on anything. Choose a day of the week and for 52 times a year stay off of social media. Read a book! To me, a good community is one that discourages misbehaviour.
Ignorance and fear are what could hold us back but knowledge and compassion are more than up to the challenge of dispelling both those foes.